First Times

By Tom Neale, 6/14/2007


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My First Fiberglass Boat
They say the first time is always the best. That’s one of the great things about being in love with boats. Those of us who love boats get to have the first time over and over again. And there are all sorts of first times. Many just had another first time this past weekend. It was when they launched their boat for the season. If you live in a part of the world where you use the boat all year long, you perhaps don’t have that first time every year, but you have plenty of other first times, like the first time you catch a fish when the season opens or the first time you cross to the Bahamas or to Catalina Island after a long windy season that kept you plastered to a dock.

It’s the nature of boating. The first time you head into a bay or a creek or a river after a long time of being away can still be like the first time ever. True, you may know a little more about where the shoals are and what’s around the bend, but the feeling of seeing the beautiful water or shoreline, when you haven’t seen it in a long time, is like a first time. And sometimes it’s even better than the first time because you know what’s waiting around the bend and you know how beautiful it’s going to be. When you fire off that grill at the beginning of the season, anchored in a quiet cove with a few other boats, it’s like a first time all over again. The same is true when you have that first summer party on a beach with your friends, each arriving in his own boat. And it’s true when your bow softly scrapes into the sand on your favorite lonely beach, and you hop out to take the anchor ashore and explore the island, the water still cold on your feet because summer hasn’t quite yet arrived. There is still the feeling of freshness and newness—even though you’ve gone there year after year after year.

Breaking ‘er Loose

1. After a boat has been sitting for awhile, don’t assume that ANYTHING aboard is going to work well.

2. Don’t wait to find out what’s working or what needs fixing until after you’ve gotten under way.

We had another first time about two weeks ago. We’d just completed a long and very difficult trip from South Florida to the Chesapeake Bay. As we came out of Hampton Roads and the Bay opened before us with its promise of beautiful green shores, thousands of miles of creeks and rivers, soft crabs and rock fish and frogs singing on the shore and lightning bugs flashing in the night blackened trees, it was like we were awakening to a new life, even though we grew up here.

We had a first time last Sunday. We have a dinghy that we helped design and build over 18 years ago. It’s been a great boat and still is. But we hadn’t used it in a while because we’d been making passage and the need or the opportunity hadn’t arisen. We were missing it. It is fast and its 25 HP Yamaha consumes little gas compared to the diesel consumed by the new 200 HP engine on “Chez Nous” or the 200 HP outboard, vintage 1985, on our 20 foot Mako. Flying along, it’s like thumbing your nose at all the trillionaire power brokers who, I think, are ripping us off at the fuel pumps. We haven’t even launched that Mako yet this year, because we don’t want to pay out the bucks necessary to fuel it. So we launched our dinghy from the stern of “Chez Nous.”

Memorial Day Weekend, Chesapeake Bay

The ride was delicious. It is aluminum and it is ugly and it turns heads as people wonder, “what on earth is that,” but it’s a far tougher more sea worthy little boat than most of the rest of them out there. And it was like a first time as we idled around the anchorage watching people stare (“Martha, look at that ugly little boat. What on earth do you think it is?”), and then took off up the river in a sudden and surprising burst of speed.

I’ll never forget the first time I launched my very own boat. Few things have topped that. I was nine years old. The boat had been built by “Uncle Ernest” who lived on a farm up the road and who sometimes built skiffs. She was pine and 12 foot long with big oar locks and decked over bow and sides. She was painted battleship gray with a red bottom. I’ll never forget the smell of the new paint—especially the copper bottom paint. The smell of a new boat, especially a new wooden boat, is something that makes life worth while. I’ll never forget the disappointment when they told me I’d have to put her in, anchor her off the beach, and let her sink and sit for a few days to swell up. This meant I wouldn’t be able to sail the seas in her just yet, and I knew that she’d never smell the same after several days under water in the York River. But I’ll never forget the feeling when the day came that I could bail her out and she was tight and I began to learn to row her. I’ve had many new boats since then, (well, most of them used new boats) and each first launch has been incredibly special, but not like the time with that little wooden skiff which I saw as my very own ship.

Except maybe the time we first headed out in our brand new Gulfstar 47 Sailmaster. Mel was growing large with Melanie, our first daughter, and the Gulfstar was to be our new home for our new life of full time living aboard, cruising and raising and teaching our family. What a first time that was! And I feel reminiscences of that moment every time I head out, after sitting for awhile in a still anchorage, in my current “Chez Nous,” which is now a 53 foot motor sailer. When I feel her rise to the first swell of open water it’s always something new and magical and alluring, even though I’ve felt it over and over again before.

Chez Nous Heads into open water at first light

There have been some not-so-good first times. Like the time I launched that first little wooden skiff, several springs after she was born, and pulled hard on the oar. That was when I first found the true significance of rot, as the oarlock pulled out of the deck. Or the time I launched my 20 foot Mako one spring and found that the steering rod was frozen solid in its casing and I had to tow it away in my dinghy. (See “ Preston to the Rescue” 30 th column under “Previous Articles.) Or the time that we landed on one of our many favorite islands after not having been there for several years, to find that the winter storms had connected it to the mainland and that, after around 50 years of knowing it as in island, it was no longer one. But overall, they’ve been very good.

So here’s to first times, and the celebration of spring and the first of summer. It’s good to own a boat. It’s good to have a life full of new beginnings.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale